Sunday, October 16, 2011

El Salvador in State of Emergency

Enjoying a relatively quiet and typical winter, Salvadorans were already dreaming of the cool, breezy months of November and December, and then the summer days beyond. Across the country, the May or “summer” harvest was solid. Though many had to scramble and purchase expensive bean seed to plant the year’s second crop season, due to losses sustained during last year’s late winter storms, hopes were high and the climate seemed promising. I had even begun to hear folks saying, “yep, winter has come to an end”.

Anyone who was thinking along those lines has certainly since changed their mind. Constant, heavy rains related to Pacific Hurricane Jova have drenched El Salvador for more than a week now, beginning last weekend and predicted to continue through Wednesday. President Mauricio Funes addressed the nation Friday, declaring a national state of emergency. As of this morning, fourteen people have lost their lives, hundreds have lost their homes, and thousands have lost livestock and crops that are their livelihood. More than 13,000 men, women and children have been evacuated from their homes and are receiving attention in one of close to 200 schools, churches and other temporary centers meagerly equipped and staffed to provide food, bedding, clothes and medical attention to evacuees.
I have spent the last three days trying to reach friends and colleagues in the communities by phone. When the grid is not flooded and the calls go through, for the most part I have been relieved by what I have heard. In many places people are still at home, with their families, safe and relatively dry. In other places families have been moved into shelters, and while it is not the most comfortable of accommodations, they too are content to be safe and dry. As of yesterday in most of the Joining Hands communities 4x4 vehicles were still able to get in and out, and there had not been severe landslides or flooding reported. However, last night the situation went from bad to worse. The bridge on the main highway connecting the central and western regions of El Salvador has collapsed, and the secondary route is being closed intermittently in order to clear away reoccurring mudslides, making mobilization of people and aid to and from the most devastated areas nearly impossible.

Eleven of El Salvador’s fourteen Departments, or Provinces, are on “Red Alert”. All community activities, including classes, sporting events, even worship services have been suspended and people are being advised to stay inside if possible. While I am safe and dry, aside from a few leaks in the ceiling, here in San Salvador and as in other urban centers, many homes and livelihoods are at risk.

The rain has lessened for the moment, from torrential downpours to light but steady showers as we transition from one storm to another. From San Salvador, I am trying to maintain communication with all our partner churches and organizations and their communities to keep our information as up-to-date as possible. Since in many places the conditions of even the main roads is not clear, at this point it is not wise to venture out to these communities to see for ourselves. This, for me, is one of the most difficult things to accept in these situations and at times the helplessness seems almost unbearable.
Our hope is to be able to reach out to some of these communities with emergency food and water rations tomorrow. There is a well coordinated effort on behalf of the government, the Red Cross and other relief organizations to meet the most urgent needs of the people, but they too are working with limited resources and as tends to happen under these circumstances, many donated items sit in storage or get siphoned off and those needs are not met.

Please join me in prayer for the people of El Salvador and throughout Central America as we continue to weather this storm. The recovery and rebuilding phase will be even more challenging and costly, but we have faith that “Dios es grande”, God is great, and is with us every step of the way, just as we accompany others.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

El Salvadoran Government & Social Movements Say No to Monsanto | | AlterNet

Exciting steps toward FOOD SOVEREIGNTY and SECURITY in El Salvador! 

Along with other representatives of the Joining Hands Network - El Salvador, I hope to travel to Usulután to meet with members of the Mangrove Association to learn more about their efforts and to discuss ways we might collaborate.

El Salvadoran Government & Social Movements Say No to Monsanto | | AlterNet
 By Carlos Martinez

On the morning of Friday, May 6th President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador’s left-wing FMLN party, arrived at the La Maroma agricultural cooperative in the department of Usulután for a potentially historic meeting with hundreds of small family farmers. Usulután has often been referred to as the country’s bread basket for its fertile soil and capacity for agricultural production, making it one of the most strategic and violent battleground zones during El Salvador’s twelve year civil war between the US-supported government and the FMLN guerrilla movement.
Once again, Usulután has entered the spotlight for its agricultural reputation. The FMLN, which initially formed around an ideology of national liberation from US hegemony, has now adopted the goal of “food sovereignty,” the idea that countries hold the right to define their own agricultural policies, rather than being subject to the whims of international market forces. On Friday, officials representing the Ministry of Agriculture and the local governorship accompanied President Funes in inaugurating a new plan aimed at reactivating the country’s historically ignored rural economy and reversing El Salvador’s growing dependence on imported grains.
The opening ceremony for the new plan was hosted by the Mangrove Association, a non-governmental organization established by members of a grassroots social movement called La Coordinadora del Bajo Lempa y Bahia de Jiquilisco (known locally as La Coordinadora), which has been supporting initiatives for food security and environmental sustainability in Usulután for over 15 years. Over the last three months, the Ministry of Agriculture has been working closely with the Mangrove Association and other campesino organizations to develop what may represent the new program’s greatest break from past governments’ agricultural policies: a goal that by 2014 all corn and bean seed needed for agriculture be produced by Salvadoran farmers, rather than purchased from multinational seed companies, namely Monsanto, as has been the case in recent years.
With ongoing support from the U.S.-based NGO EcoViva, La Coordinadora and the Mangrove Association have been working since the mid-1990s to promote diversified, sustainable agriculture for small family farmers in Usulután as a means for reducing hunger and building a strong rural economy. According to official figures, almost 95% of fruit and vegetables consumed in El Salvador are imported from abroad, along with 30% of all its beans and 40% of corn. Meanwhile, non-commercial small family farmers are said to produce up to 70% of the basic grains that are cultivated domestically, mostly for their own family’s consumption, making them particularly important for El Salvador’s food security...

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A lesson in Community

Beautiful views as seen from the trail
Imagine with me if you will, the toughest hike you have ever been on. Now imagine it were twice as long, add in several rocky switchbacks, and envision it twice as steep. This describes the trail leading down into the community of El Cuzuquito. Some of the most breathtaking views of Salvadoran landscape can be glimpsed as you stop to, well, catch your breath. 
If you look closely and you can see the ocean in the distance
El Cuzuquito, made up of about 20 families living in very humble accommodations without electricity or running water, is one of numerous communities in similar conditions in the surrounding area. But there is something that makes this community unique: food sovereignty, that is to say that while 95% of the fruits and vegetables consumed in El Salvador come in from outside the country this community is able to grow and raise what they eat and do not have to depend upon expensive imported food from other sources. It's a good thing too, could you imagine toting groceries down that hill?!?

Ricardo sharing his wisdom
 In this community there is a young man by the name of Ricardo who literally began his schooling below the branches of a mango tree, before the school building was built just 10 years ago. He does not have any advanced degrees, in fact he does not even have a diploma, but Ricardo uses his natural leadership and knowledge of the land to organize his community to the benefit of all. Recognizing the serious food crisis the community was experiencing, he organized folks to approach a local landowner and present him with a plan to cultivate three parcels of land as community gardens. Rather than divide up the land and offer plots to each individual family, the community decided it made more sense to work the land together. What about competition, what about struggles for individual success? When asked, one gentleman responded, “It’s much more beneficial to do it this way, I could never cultivate all this on my own! When we have to water, we water together, when it’s time to harvest, we harvest together, and what I don’t know about growing a certain herb or vegetable I can learn from a neighbor, and he from me.”

Green beans thriving in
one of the community plots
The gardens continue to be a community success, and as Ricardo has continued to educate himself about food and nutrition he realized that their diets were lacking in protein. By assessing the resources in the community he came up with an idea to use water from the natural spring nearby, and labor from the community to dig and fill ponds to raise Tilapia, a very hearty and tasty fish. Families in the community, having benefited from the gardens, agreed to contribute to the purchase of tubing to pipe in the water and to buy the fish and feed needed to start up. They have sought out training from the Ministry of Agriculture, and are now experimenting with native, organically raised fish “[quote] out of concern for the health of the community and prevent their children from ingesting so many harmful chemicals.”

How do we live in community? Do we celebrate only activity, success, profit and progress? Or do we relate to one another in such a way as to identify ourselves with a loving, liberating, welcoming and empowering God, a God who rejoices with those who rejoice and weeps with those who weep, who feeds and quenches the thirst of even those who are considered enemies? A God who overcame evil through the sacrifice of God’s son, and continues to speak to us through community and provide us with examples of how we might conquer evil with good!
Community members who work together in the gardens

We are made for community. Since the beginning of time people have formed themselves into clans and tribes. Our identity comes from community. We cannot find our identity in isolation. Esteem grows in community, accomplishment occurs through community. The acronym for the word “team” is together everyone accomplishes more. This is why the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans (12:9-21), goes out of his way to lay out in detail how we, who identify ourselves as Christians, are to relate to one another in and beyond our communities. Even if it seems at odds with the gods of this world.

In the face of astonishing economic disparities, and global conflicts of all kinds, solo voices can be inspiring, but ultimately only communities, united by integrity of purpose, can truly incite change as they speak for the marginalized, promote better public policy, and work for justice. My prayers for all of us is that we might live in true community; to bless everybody, to live and serve humbly and joyfully, to go the extra mile for anybody, and to always strive for peace. Amen.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Relationships or Results?

I feel like I should begin by asking forgiveness for the lack of communication over the past few months. Some of you were probably thinking I had given up Newsletters for Lent! While that was not my intention, I did allow myself to slip into a safe, reflective space over the last several weeks. 
As I reviewed pictures from my recent visits to communities I came across the photo above of a Lenten banner hanging in the cathedral in Santa María Ostuma, translated into English it reads: Lent invites us to reflect and act upon our lives. It occurred to me that all the profound, contemplative reflection and thorough analysis in the world gets us nowhere if we forget, or refuse to translate it into action.
This is where it gets tricky. Wikipedia reminds us that action is: The fact or process of doing something, typically to achieve an aim. Right. Doing something, something tangible, measurable; achieving a goal. I thought to myself, what is my “action”, what can I tell people when they ask me what I’m “doing”? It turns out what I was doing was reflecting and overanalyzing myself right into doubt and disappointment. I had avoided blogging or writing newsletters because at the six month mark I was frustrated with my lack of substantial results to report. I wanted to tell of some kind of benchmark or any kind of concrete indication that we are on the right track. Hard evidence is what people want, and I wanted to offer proof.
This is not anything new, nor is it specific to any one culture or society. Human beings have always longed for defining evidence, and have always struggled to believe in the absence of sufficient proof. In fact, the crux of the Easter story, and arguably all of Christianity comes down to just that; does an empty tomb prove resurrection?
Cathedral in Santa María Ostuma, La Paz, El Salvador
If you look closely, you will see that the cross rests on top
of a pineapple, a symbol of the town's pride in its
agricultural heritage
Luke’s Gospel tells us that two of Jesus’ followers left Jerusalem scratching their heads and discussing the week’s events with one another, and even with a stranger (who was really Jesus but whom they didn’t recognize) who joined them as they walked the seven miles to Emmaus. This stranger was clearly in the dark about all that had happened over the last week, but he was willing to listen and the disciples were willing to share what they knew.
They knew that Jesus of Nazareth was a prophet “considered by God and by all to be powerful in everything he said and did.” They knew that Jesus had been handed over by the chief priests and rulers to be sentenced to death, and they had seen him crucified. They were frustrated, disappointed and confused; they had hoped that Jesus would be the one to bring freedom to Israel. And as if that weren’t enough, now three days later the tomb had been found empty; the stone was rolled away and Jesus’ body was gone!
Next the stranger spoke and the disciples listened. He acknowledged their doubts and disappointment, he heard their frustration and confusion, and he encouraged their hope and reassured their faith by reminding them what the prophets had foretold. The stranger had lifted up the these travelers and comforted their grief through his actions. What actions, you ask? Companionship, nothing more, nothing less. Being willing to accompany the journey, though the road is long, hot and dusty. Listening first, and truly understanding. Speaking when invited, and sharing words of hope and inspiration. Seeing the value in traveling together and in the potential to grow from stranger into friend.
Preparing to share a meal with new friends from
Asociación A-Brazo, ENLACE and CHIMPS
(Children's Health International Medical Project of Seattle)

in the community of El Chaperno

Below: A special stranger-turned-friend,
Don Jesus - 102 years young!
 I pray that I might continue to actively accompany in El Salvador and not feel limited to measurable outcomes; relationships are results. How many times have eyes been opened, and the Risen Christ revealed, when we take the time to share a meal with strangers turned friends!


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Who is my neighbor?

If you look closely you can see the subtle signs that I have new neighbors. Judging by the nest, they appear to be of the avian variety. How exciting! Of all the beautiful birds I have seen and heard since coming to El Salvador I couldn't wait to see what had moved in above the broken ceiling tile just off my balcony. A puffed up, yellow breasted Chio perhaps with it's sweet songs, or the Salvadoran National Bird, a brilliant blue, red and green Torogoz? 
El Salvador's National Bird,
the Torogoz

Nope. Your common, run-of-the-mill, brown and grey, Pigeon.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a tad disappointed. I mean, Pigeons? How many Pigeons have you seen in your lifetime? Hundreds? Thousands? All pretty much the same, nothing special, and quite frankly more annoying than anything else. I was looking forward to sharing my home with some endangered species that just happened to carry the gene that will cure cancer. Something, anything more exotic. I am in El Salvador, after all. 

Reflecting on my feelings toward my new neighbor made me think about some of the challenges and frustrations we are facing as a Joining Hands Network in formation. All have come singing a different song, donning different colors, from different places and diverse backgrounds. It has not always been easy to accept one another as neighbor and recognize that all are in search of and committed to working for the same things: a safe place to call home, the means to care for family, and to live in peace with nature and neighbor. 

Are we really so different from the Pigeon? For all I know, the Pigeon may not be entirely satisfied with the new accommodations. This Pigeon probably dreamed of a spacious place, high up in the branches of a grand Ceiba tree, and has accepted a comfortable nest, out of the wind, in spite of the so-so neighbors. But what a gift! To accept one another "tal cual somos" just as we are, with our strengths and weaknesses, our gifts and our limitations. Our first mission as Joining Hands El Salvador is this: acceptance. Acceptance paves the way for relationships built on respect, trust and mutual support. If we can remember that we are created different on purpose, just like the Chio, Pigeon and Torogoz, and all in the image of a Loving Parent who cares deeply and wants the best for every one of us, maybe then we will worry less about who are our neighbors (or who are not) and focus instead on the common hopes and dreams we share and how we will achieve our goals together.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


After a restful and reenergizing visit with family and friends over the Christmas holiday, I am back in San Salvador and continue to marvel at the views (sunset over the city as seen from my laundry room window). Very different from the frost and snow covered landscapes I left in Washington, I have found temperatures in the 80s and 90s surprisingly easy to uhh, warm up to. That said, I definitely count the portable 12-inch fan I purchased upon my return among my favorite things. As quickly as I am settling back into the Salvadoran climate I hope that I can settle back into a more Salvadoran diet and reestablish non-holiday eating patterns in order to bid farewell to the extra five pounds that returned with me to El Salvador.

It is a strange thing to live in two worlds; exciting and rare at times, confusing and trying at others. My experience of traveling home for Christmas seemed to accentuate both extremes. I was thrilled, of course, to be spending the holidays surrounded by loved ones, although feelings of guilt tugged at my heart as I wished a Merry Christmas to my friends, the Honduran refugee family whose holidays would be spent very differently than mine. While only being in town for only a couple of weeks sure helps friends to carve a space, even out of  busy holiday schedules, for coffee with you, but the days fly by and the good-byes are just as bittersweet as ever. I really struggled with this: was I coming home or leaving home for the holidays? So different from one another, these two worlds are filled with different people, almost completely unknown to one another with little connection at all…or so I thought.

I had the opportunity to visit Hamblen Park Presbyterian Church in Spokane, Washington shortly before returning to El Salvador. It was my first time at this church and I was very warmly received by the Pastors, Session members and the congregation. They invited me to share a bit about Joining Hands and our work in El Salvador as the congregation follows its passion for mission by exploring the possibility of an international partnership. Their attention and questions showed their deep love and concern for Salvadoran sisters and brothers whom they had never met, and I was overwhelmed, as a relative stranger, by the hospitality and care I was shown.

In an essay entitled “Childhood and Poetry,” Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda recalls when another young boy, whom he does not know, passes him a toy through a hole in the fence. The toy had clearly been well-loved and Neruda decides to place one of his own treasures through the fence hole in return. He writes, “To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses – that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.”

It is a strange thing to live in two worlds, filled with different people, most completely unknown to one another, but definitely connected. By building and strengthening community in El Salvador and creating and fostering community in the United States – and by making the communities known to one another – I can feel these two worlds begin to merge into one. It is possible to leave home AND come home, as it turns out.